The Spanish Civil War

By Stradling, Rob | History Review, March 1999 | Go to article overview

The Spanish Civil War


Stradling, Rob, History Review


If the Republic had won

It is often said that the `ifs of history' are fascinating but fruitless. Yet in this article, which commemorates the 60th anniversary of the ending of the Spanish Civil War, Rob Stradling shows that a counter-factual consideration of what might have happened allows us new insights into the significance of what did happen.

On 1st April 1939 General Franco, the leader of the Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War, drafted a report on the military situation. It was the last in a series of bulletins which were issued by both Republican and Nationalist authorities on each day of the civil war in Spain. This particular message was short and to the point:

   `Today, with the Red Army captive and disarmed, our victorious troops have
   achieved their final military objectives. The war is over.'

To the majority of surviving Spaniards the message brought -- if nothing else -- a sense of relief after three years of ferocious and devastating warfare. To millions of mentally and physically exhausted citizens, the mere fact of peace offered some kind of hope for the future. For others, however, the effect of Franco's words was to unleash less positive emotions, such as an enduring triumphalism and a spirit of vengeance.

Yet the sufferings of Spain had not taken place in a vacuum. The Spanish civil war had been an absorbing drama, played out on an international stage and with a global audience. Its last act was a tragedy which, for many contemporaries, had a deeply personal significance. Untold numbers of people in Britain, for example, fervently wished that Franco's final report was merely the cruellest April fool spoof. Indeed, not only in Britain but all over the world, thousands of committed supporters of the Spanish Republic refused to accept the war's military verdict and continued for years -- even for decades -- to contribute to a diehard rearguard action, a struggle which one day might throw the words of the hated dictator back in his teeth. Others lapsed into a disillusionment which led to bitter and twisted cynicism about politics and its ideals. Many readers may know of someone in their extended family who, despite the attractions of cheap Mediterranean holidays, refused to set foot in Spain whilst Franco was alive. Even today, some of those dedicated ones whose mentalities were cauterised by the experience of Franco's triumph have never fully recovered. In our end-of-millennium world, in which liberal social democracy is slowly (but, it seems, surely) becoming the dominant political culture, the failure of the Second Republic has burned itself into the popular imagination as the greatest lost cause of the twentieth century.

The counter-factual argument

A-year. before Franco's last bulletin, after the battle of Teruel had been lost and with the enemy poised for a decisive breakthrough, Prime Minister Juan Negrin issued a statement of the Republic's war aims. The Thirteen Points represented, in the circumstances, an offer of conditional surrender. Negrin's terms included universal suffrage; respect for regional liberties and the rights of workers; reform of the land; exclusion of the army from politics; and a guarantee of no reprisals once the war was over. Such principles seem at first sight to justify the idealism of those who dedicated themselves to the Republic even unto death. Reference to them might validate, for example, our regular rituals of reverence to the memory of the International Brigades.

But how far are these feelings justified? Was the defeat of the Republic such a lamentable setback for liberal values -- in Spain and in the world at large? Is the Republican cause truly worthy of the homage which our culture regularly, most routinely, pays to it? Objective assessment of this issue is problematic for many reasons, but one way of proceeding is to ask the crux counter-factual question `What if ... ?' Let us -- literally for the sake of argument -- imagine that the roles in the events of sixty years ago are reversed, and it is the Nationalists who end up as the defeated side.

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